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Temple Grandin talks with members of the Cornell community before one of her lectures.

Animal behavior expert Temple Grandin’s ideas spring from her autism

Temple Grandin, the prominent author on autism and animal behavior, shared her perspective on animal behavior and livestock husbandry and met with students, faculty and other members of the Cornell community during a visit to campus Nov. 13.

Grandin gave two lectures – the first, on bovine stockmanship, and the second on animal behavior and autism – to packed lecture halls, where she drew laughter from the crowd on many occasions with her unvarnished opinions and observations.

On cattle husbandry: “Good stockmanship requires time and a lot of people aren’t willing to spend the time. … You can go buy a fancy new milking parlor, but it’s not going to work without good management.”

Temple Grandin  tours the Cornell Teaching Dairy Barn with Director Blake Nguyen, D.V.M. '12.  

On dogs and their need for human interaction: “What would I rather have, chain link fences with a great volunteer program, or a fancy dancy [facility] with no volunteers to play with the dog? I’ll take the one with the chain link fence and the volunteers.”

Grandin’s viewpoints come from experience: Animals think in pictures, just as she does. This allowed Grandin to revolutionize animal welfare, particularly in the cattle industry, where her insights have led to more humane and comfortable facility designs. She continues to use her image-based thinking to improve facilities – pointing out the errant hanging chain that causes cattle to balk or freeze. “I want to stress the importance of being a good observer when working with animals,” said Grandin. “It doesn’t matter if you’re working with livestock or dogs and cats.”

Grandin credits her power of observation to her autism and said this developmental disorder should be used and viewed as a strength as opposed to a disability. “Einstein probably had autism. Same with Steve Jobs and Edison,” she said. “The same genes that make people have a big brain are the same genes that cause autism … so you can’t get rid of it. It’s embedded. If we did get rid of it, we’d probably still be living in caves.”

“Good stockmanship requires time and a lot of people aren’t willing to spend the time. … You can go buy a fancy new milking parlor, but it’s not going to work without good management.”

Temple Grandin

Grandin’s message on leveraging one’s unique strengths struck home for third-year veterinary student Amber Forrestal, an organizer of the visit, who said: “We hope that her attitude of embracing the parts of herself that make her unique is an encouragement to anyone who feels held back by their differences.”

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has made the Time 100 list of the people who most affect our world, and is the subject of an Emmy Award-winning HBO film. More than half the cattle in North America are raised and processed in systems she designed. “Temple has revolutionized animal welfare, particularly the production animal industry,” said Forrestal. “She reminds all of us that animals are highly emotional, sensitive beings and that understanding their behavior can help us better serve them as veterinarians.”

Her visit was organized by student members of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and supported by the Cornell Dairy Center for Excellence.

Grandin’s visit included a tour and a dinner at the Cornell Teaching Dairy Barn where she shared her observations of the operation. “She was so impressed by the comfort level of our ‘ladies’ that she took her phone out mid-tour and exclaimed, ‘Now THAT'S a comfy cow’ while snapping a photo,” said student organizer Olivia Cox. “She later told us that she planned to use the photo as an example of a happy cow in her work.”

Grandin was also able to troubleshoot. “We asked her to look at a few places in the barn where cows tend to get nervous, and she made some recommendations for improving footing to limit slipping thereby keeping the cows calm,” said dairy barn Director Blake Nguyen, D.V.M. ’12.

Lauren Cahoon Roberts is assistant director of communications for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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Lindsey Hadlock